How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it

Here at last is the final segment of my ongoing series on how to avoid the most common pitfalls menacing the first-time NF book proposer. I have just spent the weekend running a garage sale, which is an apt metaphor for today’s set of advice: it is well worth the effort to take the time to set out your book’s wares thoughtfully and attractively. If you don’t set the sweaters and old plates out where prospective buyers can see them, but instead leave them in poorly-marked crates, buyers will have to expend a lot of energy to dig through the dross and packing material to get to your treasures.
If, however, you polish your silver vases and arrange Great-Aunt Matilda’s rhinestone jewelry where it can glint in the sun, even a prospective buyer casing your wares at a dead run will notice them. Heck, once we had our goodies displayed beautifully, one sharp-eyed woman bought our chest of drawers by the simple method of slamming on her SUV’s breaks and shouting a bid for it out the driver’s side window. Marketing is marketing.

Agents and editors, alas, tend not to have the time to dig through the boxes at the back of your garage, intellectually speaking — you need to make sure your book’s top selling points are not buried in the middle of 27 pages of exposition. Even if your book is the best marketing idea since THE PETER PRINCIPLE, if the presentation is not competent and professional (not synonyms, in this instance), chances are the ultra-fast skim most proposals are given will not make the market potential so obvious to you leap out at an editor.

I bring this up now, because by the time most newbie proposers reach table of contents section of the book proposal, they are so exhausted that they put the barest minimum effort into it. Please don’t make the pervasive mistake of simply reproducing the table of contents you expect to see in the finished book, where only the titles of each chapter are listed, with perhaps some impression of corresponding page numbers. All such a submission tells an agent or an editor is whether you are talented at coming up with chapter titles, which misses the point of this section: your goal here is to give a chapter-by-chapter overview of what will be in the finished book.

The key phrase to keep in mind here is ANNOTATED table of contents. Each chapter heading should be accompanied by a 2 – 3 sentence description of what will be in that chapter. Keep it concise, but do provide enough detail that a reader can see how one chapter’s argument leads naturally to the next. Yes, you will have already presented the overall argument in the overview section, but here you are showing what plank of your platform, so to speak, falls in each chapter.

In accordance with the advice of my marvelous agent, I am honor-bound to add here: don’t go to town. Limit yourself to a couple of sentences per chapter, and try not to have the whole table of contents run longer than two pages.

The next piece of the book proposal is the sample chapter (s). The rule here is simple: it should be absolutely your best writing, polished to the nines. If the chapter is less than about 20 pages, consider submitting a second sample chapter as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the chapter submitted need not be Chapter 1 – and that should come as a relief to you. In most NF books, the first chapter carries the heavy burden of summarizing the rest of the book, and thus is often the most difficult to write. If you have an interior chapter that is already in apple-pie order, include that instead. Don’t bother to provide an explanation for why you chose that chapter – everyone concerned will understand that you felt it was your best work.

In selecting your sample chapter, bear in mind that the object here is to show that you can execute in elegant, readable prose the promises you made in the overview and annotated table of contents – and do so in a style that will appeal to the target market you have identified. If your favorite chapter does not meet ALL of these criteria, consider choosing another that does.

And please, please promise me that the chapter will be in standard manuscript format, in the same typeface as the rest of the book proposal. No fancy fonts, no funky spacing, nothing that will make your work seem anything but rock-solid professional. (For those of you not familiar with precisely how standard manuscript format differs from the format one sees printed in books, hang onto your proposal for a few more days. I’ll do a write-up on standard format later.)

After your chapter, include an author bio. Basically, this is a slightly longer version of the biographical blurb we’ve all seen on the back inside dust jacket of hardcover books. No need to start with your birth or go into superlative detail — your bio should be 250 words, max, so you will only have room for the high points.

I know that it may seem a trifle redundant to include in the book proposal, given that you will have just written extensively in the overview about who you are and why you should be hired to write this book, but you need to include a one-page summary of your life. This isn’t like P.E., where you could fake massive cramps to get out of playing volleyball — yes, this is an annoying requirement, but there’s no getting out of it. Sorry.

If you prefer, you may write a single-spaced half-page, and include an author photo on the top third of the page. (The expense of this is less massive than it sounds: a good color copier will enable you to reproduce the photo page en masse for the 20 or so copies of your book proposal that your agent will eventually want you to produce.) I would highly recommend this route if you have a nifty recent photo of yourself engaged in an activity related to the topic of the book: if you are writing about firefighting, by all means let the photo show you in a firefighter’s uniform or surrounded by flames.

The tone of the bio should echo the tone of the book, if possible – not all bios are deadly serious. Mention in the last sentence what your next project is (you should ALWAYS say you are working on your next book; it brands you as a professional writer, not a one-shot author.)

In our bio, make sure to include your educational background, any awards won (ever, for anything), what you do for a living, etc., even if you think these aspects are neither representative of who you are as a writer or even remotely relevant to your topic. Don’t be afraid you will sound pompous if you list your credentials at length here — potentially, they are all selling points. Personally, like many graduates of Ivy League colleges, I tend not to mention in casual conversation where I went to school: as the old Radcliffe joke goes, the fastest way to get rid of a lecherous man in a bar is to tell him you went to Harvard. But is it prominent in my bio? You bet.

Also prominent in my bio is the fact that I grew up on the top floor of a Napa Valley winery, literally in the middle of a vineyard. Zinfandel, to be precise. Is that relevant to my book? Only marginally, but it is undeniably memorable — and part of the object of the bio game is to make darned sure that some aspect of your personality sticks firmly in the mind of everyone who reads it. I’m pragmatic: I don’t mind editors referring to me as the winery girl, as long as they are passing my proposal from hand to hand while they are doing it.

Make yourself sound interesting; you wouldn’t believe how dull and businesslike most bios are. If you have a wacky hobby, definitely mention it. Part of the point of the bio is let agents and editors know that you are a fascinating person with whom they might like to have a conversation in future. Remember, you are not just marketing the book you are proposing; you are marketing yourself as a contract employee of the publishing house.

“Yeah, right,” I can hear you scoffing. “Like they’re interested in me as a human being.

Bite your tongue, oh ye of little faith, for I have an anecdote to share. The bio in my book proposal presented me, if I do say so myself, as a pretty darned interesting human being. I am one of the world’s leading authorities on a minor political theorist, for instance, a fact appreciated by about five worthy souls scattered around the planet, and I once spent a summer running away from wild animals whilst researching for an impecunious travel guide. Oh, and I mentioned that I was working on my next book, a humorous novel about the adult lives of kids who had grown up on a hippie commune, because I went through grammar school with quite a few commune kids.

None of this had even the vaguest relationship with my memoir, which is about my relationship with a science fiction writer in my youth. Scarcely a grapevine mentioned. Yet when my agent was shopping my proposal around, an editor who passed on my memoir called her up and asked to see my novel. Why? Because, the editor said, she had liked the voice in my sample chapter –and my bio had intrigued her.

I just mention.

At the end of your proposal, include a sampling of your clippings, if you have any. If you have ever written anything for a magazine, especially a nationally-distributed one, photocopy it and include it here, even if the topic and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the proposed book. Ditto with any credited newspaper articles, short stories, and book excerpts.

This is a stumbling block for a lot of new authors, and rightly so. If your book is about thermonuclear war and your most recent clipping is about rose husbandry, it may seem disproportionate. After all, having written a few newspaper or magazine articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write a book, any more than having written a good short story means that you can instantly write the Great American Novel. However, including clippings tells an editor two things: you can meet a deadline, and someone else has taken a chance on you before (if you have been trying to find an agent for any length of time, you may already have noticed that nobody in the publishing industry likes to be the first person to recognize a new author’s work — but they love being the second).

If you don’t have any clippings, don’t worry about it. A good proposal will speak for itself. But you might want to consider, for the sake of your future projects, volunteering to write a book review or two for your community paper, or offering to write an article gratis on some item of local interest, so you have clippings later on. Even a small venue is worthwhile, and it doesn’t matter a particle whether you were paid to write the piece in question: what matters is that it saw print.

Are you rolling with laughter yet at the picture of me trying to scrabble all of this together in under three weeks? I believe I speak for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my pets when I say: for everybody’s sake, take a little more time.

One last thing: proposals are not bound in any way, so do not stick yours in the kind of three-hole punched folder you used for reports in high school. Use a folder with pockets, and nestle your work inside. And make sure the folder is either black (the safest) or dark blue.

Yes, your work will stand out more on a cluttered desk if it is in a tiger-striped magenta and silver folder. But in the conservative publishing industry, which equates standardized presentation with professionalism, standing out in that way is a drawback. Believe it or not, a non-standard proposal folder will seldom even get opened.

Please feel free to ask me follow-up questions about any of this, via the COMMENTS feature. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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